Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Scouts' dishonor'

I like the concept of Boy Scouting. In an increasingly nasty, self-absorbed society, just about any organization that promotes respect and other-centered values is a good idea, which is why their national anti-gay policy is so mystifying and out of character.

In any case, that's why it's disheartening to read this investigation that details how many Scout locals are involved in environmental rape.

For decades, local Boy Scouts of America administrations across the country have clear-cut or otherwise conducted high-impact logging on tens of thousands of acres of forestland, often for the love of a different kind of green: Cash.

A Hearst Newspapers investigation has found dozens of cases over the last 20 years of local Boy Scout councils logging or selling prime woodlands to big timber interests, developers or others, turning quick money and often doing so instead of seeking ways to preserve such lands.


A very disappointing read.


Update: Planet Albany blog offers a different take on the issue

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bits and pieces

Occasional series of essays linking to stories interesting in their own right but for which I don’t have time to devote individual essays…

-DANCE OF THE DELUSIONAL DENIALISTS. Denialism seems to be the cause of the week. First, Pope Benedict XVI took flack for revoking the ex-communications of four ultra-conservative bishops who broke with Rome over Vatican II, the council which brought the Catholic Church into the modern era. The move by the Pope was designed to promote unity within the Church but he took heat from Jewish groups because one of the bishops is a Holocaust denier. The Pope's timing was seen as particularly crass, coming only a few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day. Only a few days before his rehabilitation, the bishop told Swedish television, "I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler." He went on to estimate that no more than a few hundred thousand Jews were killed by the Nazis and suggested that it wasn't due to any conscious policy of industrial mass murder. Another denialist also made news with some bizarre claims. Sonia Karadzic, daughter of indicted Serbian war criminal Radovan, insists her father is innocent. This is not newsworthy in itself but she went on to claim that the Srebrenica massacre, the worst war crime in Europe since World War II, was ordered by then-US president Bill Clinton. She told the BBC, "It goes back to 1993, two years before the tragedy. It was determined then that Srebrenica would be the location of a crime, and that there would have to be a minimum of 5,000 victims. That was determined by President Clinton." This is the same Pres. Clinton who spent years RESISTING calls for US intervention in the Balkans.


-RENDERING JUSTICE. Former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean wonders if we are civilized enough to hold our leaders accountable for war crimes? Doubtful. 'Justice' is for low-level war criminals like the Abu Ghraib brigade or for high-level war criminals in geopolitically minor countries like Karadzic and Liberia's Charles Taylor. High-ranking war criminals in powerful countries get a free pass so long as they put their hand on their heart and swear they 'meant well... honest!' As long as we do that, we have to 'forget about the past' in the name of 'national unity' and 'respect for the office.' Accountability (for high-ranking officials only; Joe Six Pack is still punished if he breaks the law) must be sacrificed in the name of 'moving forward.' I think I've used every cheap catchphrase that's used to try to sweep such crimes under the rug. Though Dean warns Other countries are likely to take action against officials who condoned torture, even if the United States fails to do so. So-called executive privilege, the nakedest of authoritarian power grabs, is one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American people, though that merits an essay by itself.


-NOT A CULT OF PERSONALITY, JUST LEADERSHIP. This weekend, Bolivians voted comfortably to approve sweeping changes to their constitution to decentralize power and grant equal rights to the country's large indigenous population. "This will be an egalitarian Bolivia, a Bolivia that leaves behind a dark, colonial, racist past," explained the country's vice-president. The changes were largely opposed in the country's economic heartland, where the people are predominantly of European descent. This is not surprising. People who have historically used state power to achieve and maintain positions of privilege will never give away those positions of privilege without a fight, often literally. Witness Ian Smith and his lunatic followers in Rhodesia or his successor Robert Mugabe and his (every shrinking) band of fanatics in Zimbabwe. They come to see their position of privilege as one of birth right. They see calls for equality as 'grievance politics' or 'special rights.' Bolivia is a very class-divided country, even by South American standards. President Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous head of state, deserves tremendous praise for trying end Bolivia's social apartheid and raise the standard of living for the long-oppressed majority. Unlike one of his fellow left-wing South American leaders, Pres. Morales seems more concerned about improving the lives of his people than his own global superstardom.


-FREEDOM OF CHOICE, EMPLOYEE STYLE. Apparently The Employee Freedom of Choice Act gets the thumbs up for Human Rights Watch. While some states, such as New York, guarantee collective bargaining rights in their constitutions, there is no such protection nationally. HRW views this bill as a key protection of employees' right to freedom of association.


-STRANGER DANGER? Good news: according to new research, children online are far less at risk from pervy adults than is widely feared by parents. Bad news: they are far more at risk from their peers and cyberbullying.


-WHAT THE F...UDGE IS WRONG WITH SOCIETY? A 15 year old in California uses social pressure to discourage swearing and as a result receives death threats for it. Sadly, I'm not making this up.


-SOMETIMES NEW YORK STATE GOVT REMINDS ME OF A BANANA REPUBLIC. Political theater is so predictable that it's almost comical. Or it would be if we weren't spending millions of dollars to pay these clowns. Earlier this month, Democrats took control of the New York State Senate for the first time in 40 years. They spent much of those 40 years promising democratization of the institution should they take power. Republicans spent much of those 40 years treating Democratic members lower than dirt, rather than representatives of New Yorkers (Assembly Democrats do the same thing). For example. majority Republicans barred minority Democrats from putting their names on bills to be voted on by the whole chamber. But as soon as the change happened... well you know what followed. Senate Democrats introduced very modest rules changes. Republicans whined that they weren't democratic enough. Of course, they had 40 years of their own to implement minority-friendly rules and refused. Democrats promised a committee to study further changes. Republicans whined that the further changes should be made now; three months more was far too long to wait... after 40 years of obstructionism. In 2007, (then-minority) Democrats introduced a reform bill that was voted down by the GOP-run chamber. A few weeks ago, (now-minority) Republicans introduced a nearly identical bill and which was defeated in the Democrat-run chamber. Most Democrats who voted for the 2007 bill voted against this bill. Most Republicans who voted against the 2007 bill voted for this bill. No wonder the New York legislature is regularly described as the most dysfunctional in the nation.


-SPEAKING OF HYPOCRISY... My local Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand was recently appointed to the US Senate to fill the seat vacated by now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There will be a special election to fill Gillibrand's House seat. Republican county committee chairs decreed state Assembly minority leader Jim Tedisco, the biggest media whore in Albany, as the GOP candidate for the race. Tedisco, who bears a startling resemblance to a used car salesman, doesn't actually live in the Congressional district he wants to represent. Apparently he has a summer home in the district to where he claims he's going to move should he get elected. In 2006, then-challenger Gillibrand was attacked by Republicans because although she lived in the district, she had not lived here long enough for their standards. Standards which have dramatically changed a few short years later.


-SPEAKING OF DYSFUNCTIONAL... If you or I arbitrarily decided to stop paying taxes because money was getting a little short, we'd be in big trouble. But apparently it's okay when the state does it. As described by Adirondack Almanack blog, one of the cost-cutting proposals by NY Gov. David Paterson is to cap the state’s property tax payments to local towns, counties and school districts that host state Forest Preserve lands. About half of the land in the huge Adirondack Park is owned by the state; the other half is privately owned. Paterson's proposal would be devastating. It would decimate local government and school coffers, thus hugely increasing the tax burden on the region's private property owners (because while the state tax payments may disappear, you know that state mandates on municipalities and schools will not). Especially since the poor private sector economy inside the Blue Line and according lack of sales tax revenues makes the region's localities heavily dependent on property taxes as a revenue source. The Catskill Park in southeastern New York would also be affected.


-TONE DEAF MUSIC INDUSTRY. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has gained infamy by suing college students who illegally shared songs. After a wave of bad publicity, the RIAA finally smartened up and changed its strategy to press the file sharers' internet providers to cut off service. The record industry continues to shrivel because for too long it resisted new technologies rather than figuring out ways to make it work. Anyway, in what presumably is one of the last lawsuits, a Harvard law professor requested that the proceedings be streamed live on the Internet. The still tone-deaf RIAA objected. The judge slapped them down. She pointed out that the RIAA claims the whole point of their lawsuits was not to go after each illegal downloader but to serve as a broader deterrent and that their objection to publicizing the trial is at odds with this claim.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Give peace a... break?

Last week, I wrote of my cautious optimism for the new Obama administration. I was criticized for this by people who pointed out that he was just another ruling class politician. I responded that they were not wrong but that my hope rested less on the person of Obama himself and more on the possibility of building bridges with the millions of progressives who, for whatever reasons, voted for him. For example, millions of Obama voters support single-payer health care, even though the president himself does not. Instead of denouncing the president in week one of his term, why not engage these self-described progressives to put pressure on Obama to implement elements of the progressive agenda?

I also felt that being cynical (or whatever euphemism one wants to use), especially before he even took office, serves no purpose. In fact, it risks backfiring. If you convince someone that both Obama in particular and the system in general are irredeemably corrupt, then that person will instead go home and watch American Idol because they will view any action as pointless. They will see the situation as irredeemable. Hopeless people do not get into activism.

One of my fears all along is that an Obama presidency would neuter liberals and progressives. That they would give him a free pass for things for which that they would excoriate Bush. This is why I proposed that non-Obama voting progressives should engage those who did vote for the Democrat, rather than mocking them. Challenge them to make sure Obama lives up to whatever was their perception of what he stood for.

Unfortunately, my fear of neutering appears to have been well-founded. Already, a anti-war group in Potsdam , NY (the village in which I went to college) has decided to suspend its peace vigils after six years of having one every Saturday morning.

Somehow I missed the memo that either peace (or even the end of war) had come to Afghanistan and Iraq . In fact, last thing I read was that President Obama had promised to ESCALATE the war in Afghanistan , hoping to mimic the success the Soviet occupiers had in the same country.

Now, I understand from personal experience that Potsdam in the winter is frigid. When it's below zero outside with a bitter wind, the only place you want to be is inside under a blanket. But I have no doubt the last six winters in Potsdam have been bitter too and they continued to protest these moral monstrosities. The weather hasn't changed. The policies haven't changed.

I understand giving Obama a chance to do the right thing. I understand not calling for him to face a war crimes' trial. I understand not denouncing him. But how is the right thing going to happen, absent public pressure?

It really boils down to these questions. Were the Potsdam activists protesting Bush or protesting the wars? Was their number one objective to end the Bush presidency or to end the wars of aggression, the devastation and the killing funded by their and our tax dollars? The Bush presidency is history. The carnage he initiated continues.

The Potsdam group may be well-intentioned but do they actually believe Obama is going to magically buck the military-industrial complex if peace activists sit on their butt and hope for the best? You know very well that those who have a vested interest in endless war aren't going to sit on their butts and hope. They are going to be lobbying the heck out of the White House and the Democratic Party, including with their 'contributions.' If there's no counter pressure to the Boeings and the Blackwaters, how's anything going to improve?

Simply put: will progressives hope for the future or will we try to shape it?

The Potsdam group made the wrong choice.

Politicians will do whatever they're allowed to get away with, especially by their own supporters. It should be no more acceptable to give Obama a blank check than it was to give Bush one.

If Obama is really is the Messiah so many of his supporters seem to think, then now is the time to push the progressive agenda now, to strike while the iron's hot. Now's the time for his supporters to make sure he keeps whatever they think his promises were. Far from resting on laurels and patting oneself on the back, the Obama presidency should herald a Surge in progressive activism if we are to reverse the damage of the Bush-Clinton years.

Electing a black president does little good if he acts the same as the white presidents before him.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Take note Pulitzer committee!

Locals often criticize the daily The Post-Star for everything from shallow journalism, to bias (liberal, conservative and corporate) to editorial choices (what appears in the paper and where) to an apparent lack of copy editors.

But they can also provide some fascinating insight into issues that you never would've expected.

For example, did you know that when shopping decreases, employment drops too?!

Seriously!

Groundbreaking journalism at its finest.

Weather guessing

When I went to college, I really should've studied meteorology rather than math. Being a weather guesser has to be the best job in the world. In what other job, except for baseball player, can you fail 3 out of every 4 times and still be considered competent? I'm more surprised when the weather guess, er, "report" is actually anything vaguely close to correct.

Today's predicted low temperature is 5 degrees.

The current temperature is -12 degrees.

I'll make sure to keep my shovel handy for tomorrow. It's supposed to be clear and dry.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Big political news day in this area

Local Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand was anointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton. Gillibrand will have to run again in a special election in 2010. Even before she was officially named, Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy promised a primary challenge, slamming Gillibrand's pro-gun owners' rights stance.

And in an event that would be the lead story on any other day, a long-serving former Republican state senate majority leader Joe Bruno was indicted on eight counts of public corruption. The indictment against Bruno by a federal jury was not unexpected as an FBI probe into his business dealings had been ongoing for quite some time. Bruno was born in Glens Falls and is apparently a distant relative of mine, though it didn't do any good for my unemployed-at-the-time father back when Bruno was embroiled in a nepotism scandal early in his term as majority leader. My father may have had the right last name, but the wrong letter after it: a (D) rather than an (R).

A collective punishment against common sense

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Periodically, you hear of boycotts against Israel, Israelis and Israeli products for their long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Even in unassuming New Zealand, you saw a bizarre protest against an Israeli tennis player and a restaurant owner declaring he wouldn't serve Israeli guests. Bear in mind, these protests weren't against Israeli leaders or anyone in any kind of decision making capacity or even against Israeli bureaucrats. They 'shrewdly' targeted tennis players and tourists because they were too impotent to think of action that was meaningful like, I don't know, organizing fundraisers to help Gazan families.

They protest a collective punishment by... imposing a collective punishment.

People who do this insist they are not anti-Semitic and that they just detest what the Israeli STATE is doing. I have some sympathy for that. What the Israeli state is doing in the occupied territories, keep them as de facto prisons for 40 years, is unconscionable. Their recent annihilation of Gaza (1300 Palestinians dead, 5300 wounded, 1.5 million made homeless) is the worst atrocity of all.

But how often do you hear for such sanctions against other human rights abusing countries? I've never been sure why human rights abuses by the Israeli state merit a boycott against everything related to that country but human rights abuses by Syria, Sri Lanka, Eritrea and countless other places barely merit a mention, let alone a cause célèbre. How come no one boycotts the local Chinese restaurants in solidarity with, say, Tibet?

The Israeli government should be punished. Their leaders should be sent to The Hague or, at the very least, be subject to a travel ban like Robert Mugabe and his thugs. Protest in front of Israeli embassies and consulates all you want. But what purpose does it serve to protest tourists, except reinforce the already impenetrable Israeli siege mentality?

Most absurdly, I've periodically heard members of western academia call for cultural boycotts against Israel. If you call for a cultural boycott against any country or people, then you should be automatically kicked out of academia. The whole point of universities is to foster cross-cultural understand, increase exposure to different ideas and expand knowledge. It's completely antithetical to that purpose to call for a cessation of cultural links, a decrease in exposure to different ideas and shrink knowledge.

In times of war and other time, cross-cultural exchanges, such as via universities, are even more important not less. If these so-called academics are going to make their ivory tower into a prison, then they have no business being paid to influence young people.

Today, I read a great example of the sheer stupidity of such cultural boycotts. I'm sure many of you have heard of the film Waltz With Bashir, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. The film maker Ari Forman was part of an Israeli army unit that was involved with the infamous Sabra and Sathila Massacre, in which Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militia slaughtered nearly 3000 Palestinians refugees during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The film maker had great guilt about being part of such an atrocity and the film explored that. Much like All Quiet on the Western Front, the film was an anti-war piece made all the more powerful by the fact that it was told by a soldier.

So here you have a powerful anti-war film, an anti-war against Lebanon film, an anti-massacre film, a film that casts the Israeli army in a dubious light.

And it is banned in Lebanon, because the country has a law prohibiting the importation and viewing of all Israeli films, regardless of content.

Sounds more like a collective punishment against common sense.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What I believe

In the spirit of the last entry and of the NPR This I Believe series, here are some beliefs of my own. Some have been posted here before and some are new.

I believe that being humane is more important than being smart.

I believe ethics are a way of life. Either you believe in them or you don’t.

I believe the celebrity culture is not worth anyone’s attention.

I believe in respecting others. Not necessarily agreeing with every life choice they make but respecting who they are.

I believe that politeness is a greatly undervalued in the modern world.

I believe that you are irrelevant except to the extent that you affect other people and other living creatures.

I believe bars are a terrible place to meet people.

I believe narrow-mindedness, snobbery and pomposity are three different versions of the same thing.

I believe Jerry Springer, professional wrestling and most political yap shows are three different versions of the same thing.

I believe that religion is neither inherently good nor evil. Both Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr. were driven by their religious beliefs.

I believe that if your deity tells you to commit violence against innocent people, you need to shop around for a new deity.

I believe that if the leader of your country tells you to commit violence against innocent people, you need to shop around for a new leader.

I believe that PBS history documentaries are ten times better than History Channel documentaries.

I believe that while small towns have their flaws, they have many redeeming values even for open-minded, culturally inclined people.

I believe that America is not the only country in the world and that Americans are not the only people in the world. I believe that too few Americans appreciate this. And sometimes people in the rest of the world forget that too.

I believe that money is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I believe that if you define yourself by your job, then you'd better have a meaningful job.

I believe that a life without a dream is not a life.

I believe there’s too little idealism in the world.

I believe that how you think is far more important than what you think.

I believe that your course in life is usually determined by whether you are a fundamentally positive or fundamentally negative person.

I believe that you can learn so much about people and the world by simply closing your mouth and paying attention, really paying attention. If when people aren't talking to you.

I believe that helping others is its own reward.

I believe that children are more interesting than adults. I also believe they are easier to deal with than adults because, for better or worse, they are more straight-forward.

I believe that people who never have doubts are very dangerous.

I believe that people with no sense of humor are very dangerous.

I believe that just because you like to be alone at times doesn’t mean you’re lonely or a loner.

I believe that being alone with your thoughts is important every once in a while.

I believe that sunsets are God’s way of saying, “Take ten minutes to slow down and relax.”

I believe burning leaves is the most evocative smell.

I believe that autumn is the best season.

I believe everyone should try to learn at least one foreign language.

I believe everyone should live in another country at some point, if only for a few months.

I believe everyone should work at least one job in the service industry. It might make them less of a jerk when dealing with underpaid food service, supermarket, department store or amusement park workers.

I believe you should actively seek opinions, perspectives and points of view that are different from your own. I believe that everyone should occasionally read newspapers or consume other news sources from countries other than their own.

I believe America the Beautiful should be this country's national anthem. I believe we ought to do more to heed its lines, "God mend thine ev'ry flaw; Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!"

I believe that patriotism must manifest itself in concrete actions, not merely in cheap politicized slogans.

I believe that it's better to be slightly disappointed at someone for not fulfilling high expectations than satisfied that they fulfilled low ones.

I believe citizens expect too little of politicians and even less of ourselves.

I believe that a sense of place is important. Every place should not look and feel like every place else.

I believe every once in a great while, you should do something totally out of character. You might learn something about yourself.

Are you smarter than a first grader?

Click here to find out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope?

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I have a confession to make: I'm guardedly optimistic about the prospects for the Obama presidency.

It's no secret that I've had issues with him in the past. But he's impressed me since his election.

He has a tight balancing act, trying to represent all Americans while not abandoning what appear to be his moderate liberal instincts. But at least he's trying, which is more than can be said for his predecessor.

Bush has been a disastrous president and in almost every stylistic manner, Obama is the polar opposite. I think this is why people are so hopeful. Many people are also excited about the prospect of an actual intellectual in the White House. What's important is not Obama's intelligence, although that helps, but his curiosity. There is an important symbolism that leader of the nation be open-minded, constantly seek to challenge himself. There's an important symbolism that the self-proclaimed leader of the free world be open to that world. And in a country that claims to be meritocratic, it's important to have a president that worked hard to achieve the position, a president that inspires voluntary respect rather than demanding personal loyalty. And in a country that so values innovation, it's important to have a president that seems welcomes new ideas. Let's hope that intellectualism, the pursuit of knowledge, replaces willful ignorance as the trait most valued in America.

The thing I've most feared is that the euphoria over Obama's election will neuter his supporters. If Obama is to truly represent the change he claims, then it requires everyone to hold his feet to the fire, especially the people who supported him. Will his swearing in be the beginning or the end?

I won't paper over the issues I've had with him. He's made militaristic noises toward Pakistan and Iran. It remains to be seen if that was just to appear tough to appease the corporate media or if he meant it. He's promised the same blind loyalty toward Israeli atrocities as the current administration. The bucketloads of corporate cash he's received is a serious potential impediment to the sort of change he's sold. This is where it's important that his supporters not be overjoyed into silence. Lack of accountability is what made the current presidency a nightmare and it could do the same to Obama's if the people let it.

The major differences between he and Bush are on style. But while substance is important, leadership style isn't irrelevant either. No president can anticipate in advance every issue he's going to face in his presidency. Bush was strongly against 'nation building' before he took office. That quickly went out the window after 9/11. Instead of the 'humble America' he promised, Bush gave us a humbled America.

The decision making process, the leadership style, of a president and administration determines how these unexpected crises are faced. And Obama's apparent style of openness and collaboration is more likely to result in success than Bush's style of secrecy and surrounding himself with yes men. It remains to be seen how he'll govern; we'll know more about him once he actually has to face challenges and do something that might be controversial. But I'm somewhat reassured by his apparent instincts.

He's been so oversold as the Messiah that there will be inevitable disappointments. Especially since the hope invested in him was as much about disgust with the current administration's sickening immorality as about Obama himself. His supporters have to come back to Earth. Still, I'm willing to give Obama a chance. Not a blank check, but a chance.

But after eight years of the Dark Ages, let's hope that Obama's inauguration begins America's Renaissance. With all the problems the country's facing, I'm hopeful that we finally have a president and an administration that might actually be up to the job. THAT would be change we can believe in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dr. King's real dream: dignity for all

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.

Checking in on the watchdog

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Apparently I'm not the only person who thinks that the chit-chatty, flip style of The Post-Star's editorials reflects poorly on the paper.

Though ignoring the unprofessional style, they do get the content right once in a while, such as here and here.

The paper refuses to allow online responses to letters to the editor. Their logic is: Our letter writers are held to a standard that requires them to sign their letters. The commenting feature online does not require the respondent to be identified. We don't feel that is fair. If anyone would like to respond to a letter, they must be held to the same standard as the letter writer and be identified. They can do this by writing their own letter to the editor through the Web site or responding directly to the editor.

Frankly, I understand and sympathize with this position. However, I find it a bit hypocritical that they would then continue to allow 'Don Coyote' to make 'his' cheap shot of the day. 'Don Coyote,' I have no doubt, is nothing more than a cover for Post-Star staff members to make snide comments about public figures without compromising their 'objectivity.'

Given how often the paper's managing editor brags (usually here) about how the daily gives prominence of place to local stories, I found it odd that they would place a wire service article about Martin Luther King Day celebrations on the front page of the print version while a story about the local King Day celebration was relegated to the local section.

Accordingly, the paper's coverage of the local event was disappointing. Very brief remarks from local politicians earned four paragraphs in the article. Yet the magnificent and powerful remarks by the keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Glorya Askew only earned a token half sentence. I guess this is what happens you provide substance instead of soundbites.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What is corruptible?

Civic activist Ralph Nader has often talked about how Washington has become corporate occupied territory. This has been achieved primarily through the increasingly out of control influence of money on the electoral process. This has been aided and abetted by an unconscionable and irrational Supreme Court decision that unfathomably decreed that campaign contributions constituted 'speech' and that such bribes were thus unregulateable.

Yesterday, the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-1 to recommend Hillary Clinton's nomination for Secretary of State to the full Senate.

The lone dissenter was Republican David Vitter. The Louisiana senator cited that fact that the global foundation founded by former Pres. Clinton to address ills in the developing world accepted donations from other countries' governments. Vitter, who, last year, found himself embroiled in a hooker sex scandal, lectured the rest of the committee on the risk of impropriety, or even the appearance of impropriety. I suppose he should know.

In other words, donating money to the non-profit foundation of a public official's spouse represents a disqualifying potential corrupting influence. But donating money directly a public official's campaign coffers is nothing more than a selfless gesture and unimpeachable "freedom of speech."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Groundhog Day in Guinea

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

A long-ailing dictator finally dies. A corrupt, repressive regime heading a sclerotic state is overthrown, replaced by a military junta of young officers which tears up the constitution, promises to crack down on graft and improve the country's economic state and launches a purge of high ranking officials. 1984 in Guinea is repeating itself.

The death of the West African country's strongman, Gen. Lansana Conté, has cast confusion into a country that once billed itself an island of stability in a turblent West African sea. Conté himself came to power in a 1984 military coup under nearly identical circumstances as today. Less than a day after his death, a group of young soldiers took power and formed a ruling junta called the National Committee for Democracy and Development (known by its French-acronym CNDD).

As expected, the seizure of power was widely condemned by the outside world, including the US, European Union, African Union and the West African regional body ECOWAS. This is understandable, as these entities tend to have a pro forma opposition to military coups d'Etat.

What's notable is how the coup was generally welcomed by Guineans themselves. Pres. Abdoulaye Wade of neighboring Senegal was one of the few foreign leaders to urge recognition of the junta. The civilian opposition parties in Guinea were also notable in their failure to condemn the putsch.

The main difference is that outside countries and organization hold general principles like military intervention is always bad, civilian rule is always good, constitutionalism and elections are the be all and end all. These are good principles in theory and perhaps the only principles these organizations can actually enunciate but in practice, things are more nuanced.

The main reason Guineans themselves supported this military intervention against "constitutionalism" is because constitutionalism in Guinea was a fraud. The Guinean loi fondamentale was basically ignored by Conté and the cabal around him, including his minions in the judiciary. The constitution Conté himself (or his loyalists) wrote decreed that the head of state be a civilian. Yet Conté remained an active military general for nearly all of his reign. The constitution allowed the Supreme Court to declare a 'vacancy in power' should the president die or become seriously ill and that the National Assembly president become acting head of state. Despite Conté being a virtual vegetable for years, such a vacancy was never declared and the state remained paralyzed. In fact, the current National Assembly's mandate officially ended in 2006 as legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed. So it's debatable whether the normal constitutional process would even be legal in this case.

In suspending the constitution, the CNDD merely formalized what had been the reality of the past several years: the Guinean constitution had long ceased to be relevant to the country's politics.

And it's worth asking why the Conté regime's massive human rights abuses, abuses of power, corruption, arbitrary arrests and the like did not garner a fraction of the international condemnation received by the soldiers who put an end to this regime.

In reality, the military intervention was not a coup against an irrelevant constitution. It was a coup against an irredeemably corrupt system. The mafia around Conté has had a stranglehold on the economy for years. Had the "constitutional" transition taken place, this cabal would've retained its suffocating control on the floundering economy. People who had a vested interest in the system were never going to permit changes. They'd proven this in the way several of Conté's former prime ministers found their much needed ideas for reform strangled by those vested interests. A "constitutional" transition would've permitted the continuation of the dysfunctional, sclerotic institutions and faux democracy that had never been given a chance to work normally.

Conté had been a vegetable for years. It's an open secret that his cabal has been de facto running the country for a long time. The "constitutional process" would have both legitimized and perpetuated this disastrous state of affairs.

In principle, I don't like appear to be endorsing military coups. But when legality has long ceased to be part of the equation, what's the difference? Who cares whether the men illegally holding power wear khaki or not?

The main concern about the coup is talk of a split within the armed forces. High-ranking military officials opposed the coup and supported the "constitutional" continuation of the system from which many of them benefited. Junior officers, feeling they got the short end of the stick, led the coup. Guinea's new head of state, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, has publicly admitted divisions within the armed forces and urged dissident officers to remain calm, though this appeal came a few days after the junta arrested several top generals.

The CNDD's reign may not ultimately lead to democracy and good governance. But a continuation of the old system was guaranteed to prevent those things. A short-lived military junta is not sure to bring progress, but regime change is the only chance for such progress to have the slightest hope of getting enough oxygen to thrive.

It's worth remembering that the CMRN junta led by Conté from 1984-93 brought real improvements to the Guinean economic and political climate before they became too comfortable with power and fell prey to Lord Acton's Dictum.

The Guinean opposition is calcified and opposition parties are based largely on the cult of personality around their party leader. Nearly all older opposition parties have the same leader they did when pseudo-democracy was declared in the early 90s. Nearly all of the newer opposition parties formed since have been created by a dissident from an existing party who got pissed off and formed a party around their own self. Opposition parties are mostly ethnically-based and have no real ideological agendas... other than professing their belief in democracy (because that's what all parties say when in opposition).

But in fairness, the repression waged by Conté's regime really prevented opposition parties from having the political space to operate normally. Opposition party members were systematically harassed, subjected to arbitrary arrest and the like.

Neither was civil society really given much space to operate, except when they finally forced themselves onto the scene during the general strike of early 2007. And the general strike might prove to be one of the most significant events in Guinean history. It was the first civilian event that truly made the dictatorial Conté regime tremble with fear, because it was the first uprising that was truly popular in origin. It was the second time in Guinea's history that a grass roots uprising made a dictatorial regime blink, the 1977 market women's revolt being the first.

With the former opposition political parties impotent and incoherent, an organized and assertive civil society might be the difference between a military junta that keeps its promise to cede power via democratic elections this year and one that finds a million excuses to hang on to power ad infinitum.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable"

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee that the US would not talk to Israel until Hamas renounced violence. She did not enunciate any requirement that Israel renounce violence. Personally, I would have no problem with both Israeli and Hamas leaders being shipped off to the International Criminal Court, given their mutual disregard for international law with regard to civilians. Though it's worth noting that the biggest difference between the two parties is that the weaponry with which Hamas commits its war crimes was not paid for with billions of my tax dollars.

One of my favorite quotes is from former US president John F. Kennedy who said, "Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable." I said before that as long as Israel continues to occupy the Conquered Territories, there WILL be resistance. Every colonial power in history has found out that the people don't like to be ruled by outsiders, no matter how righteous the latter consider themselves.

Standard Israeli rhetoric is that they would be more thrilled that a 11 year old girl at a Jonas Brothers' concert if the Palestinians would simply renounce violence and try to solve the region's difference through peaceful, democratic means. There's one major problem. The Israeli state has pretty much made that impossible. And you can refer to the JFK quote to figure out what will happen next.

Israel's Central Elections Committee has banned the two leading Arab parties from contesting the next election. The majority of Arab members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) belong to these two parties.

The ruling Kadima Party (which is actually moderate in the Israeli context) has made its racism clear by opposing demands of one of the banned parties that (gasp) all Israeli citizens be treated equal under the law. Kadima claimed that such equality would "undermine Israel’s identity as a Jewish state." Such naked tribalism is something most westerners stereotype to darkest Africa, not the country that repeatedly pats itself on the back as 'only democracy in the Middle East.'

So Israel's message is that Arabs and Palestinians are not permitted to be part of the 'democratic' process and they are 'terrorists' if they resort to violence. So how exactly are they supposed to express themselves?

Some fanatical pro-Israeli demonstrators in New York City have an answer: the Palestinians should simply be wiped out.

Now, if some random US Muslim called for Israel to be wiped out, it would be news in this country on every major news outlet as well as Fox News. But when it's made by an Israeli supporter about Palestinians, it barely gets a mention even in the alternative media.

One young fanatic said of Hamas, "They are forcing us to kill their children in order to defend our own children. Those who die are suffering God’s wrath."

Given the high percentage of women and children killed in the aggression against Gaza, this gives some insight into the dementia suffered by religious extremists. But really, what rational person can have any comment on such inhuman bile except to shake one's head in disgust?

The only hope is that, according to this article, progressive Jews are trying to take over the American Jewish lobby from the militarists. That's a battle worth fighting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony in Glens Falls (and Johnsburg)

[From a press release]

January 12, 2009 – The Glens Falls Martin Luther King Day Committee announced today that the 2009 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Commemoration will be held Sunday, January 18, 2009 in Glens Falls.

The keynote speaker will be the Reverend Doctor Glorya Askew, currently serving as the Ministerial Program Coordinator for Ministerial and Family Services with the Department of Correctional Services. For 28 years, Reverend Askew has served as chaplain at four correctional facilities, the last, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, is the only maximum security facility for women in New York. Dr. Askew has co-edited two books entitled, Reclamation of Black Prisoners: A Challenge to the African American Churches and From Prison Cell to Church Pew: The Strategy of the African American Church.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963. Dr. King vociferously opposed the Viet Nam War and became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Price. He was assassinated forty years ago this April 4 while in Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black sanitary public works employees, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Dr. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Martin Luther King Day was established as a national holiday in the United States in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states officially observed the holiday for the first time. Before 2000 the holiday was not observed by New Hampshire, Arizona, or South Carolina and in Virginia, the holiday was added on to Lee-Jackson Day, a day meant to honor confederate generals, and became Lee-Jackson-King Day. Although the day is now a universally celebrated federal and state holiday, it is usually not observed by American corporations.

The event will begin at 3:30 pm on the steps of Glens Falls City Hall with remarks from local politicians, including Glens Falls Mayor Jack Diamond and State Senator Betty Little. At 4 pm, following their brief remarks, marchers will proceed to Christ Church at 54 Bay Street where a public program celebrating the life, work, and message of Dr. King will be held beginning at 4:30 pm.

The public event at Christ Church will feature the Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir, the Christ Church United Methodist choir and the keynote speech by Dr. Glorya Askew. There will be a reception with free baked goods and beverages to follow. The Glens Falls chapter of the NAACP will be collecting non-perishable food items to be donated to local food pantries, as a community service project in honor of Dr. King’s call to action. You are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to the event.


Update: Adirondack Almanack reports that the town of Johnsburg will also have an event in honor of Dr. King.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why a small businessman supports single payer health care (guest essay)

Editor's note: During the recent State of the State address in Albany, the Green Party of New York held a press conference to respond to Gov. Paterson's address. In it, local baker and activist Matt Funiciello explained why he, as a small-businessman, has become a strong support of single-payer health care and why it would provide superior coverage at significantly less cost. His remarks are reprinted with permission.

(WNYT-TV's coverage of the press conference can be found here; Matt's own blog is here).


**

My name is Matt Funiciello. I am the owner of a bread bakery and cafe in Glens Falls, N.Y. I currently employ 36 people. I am here today to deliver my own brief state of the state from a small business owner’s perspective. This is not the perspective of a lobby group purporting to represent small business. It is the perspective of someone who has actually run a small business in New York state for over 20 years.

As this economic downturn began, small business owners, like the majority of Americans, saw substantial increases in energy costs and commensurate increases in most other goods and supplies. In my industry, we were already struggling with the negative impact of increasing wheat prices as corn subsidies encouraged many wheat farmers to grow corn for ethanol. This created a terrible “food for fuel” quandary in which the corn lobbies seem to have been the only clear winners.

While our costs have steadily increased so has the cost of living for our workers. Even so, we have not been able to make pay increases to keep up with cost of living as our sales have been in decline. We were actually forced to implement a small pay cut in September of 2008 and I was eventually forced to sell my home and borrow a substantial sum of money to keep my business afloat as the year progressed and we suffered the additional negative effects of a fire.

We ceased carrying health insurance about a year ago as costs skyrocketed along with co-pays and pharmaceutical prices. We had to discontinue our retirement plan as we were no longer able to afford to participate in it. Many of our restaurant and retail accounts have been adversely affected as well by decreased consumer spending. Several long-time customers have even thrown in the towel.

I say all of this not as some kind of litany of woes but as an example of what the typical business owner is actually going through. We are a tough bunch and we will make it but, make no mistake, we are hurting. If you wish to understand the direct impact the recession is having on those in the working and middle class, look no further. We have tightened our belts, cut costs and minimized our needs, but we are still prepared to sacrifice more if we have to. We would, however, like to know that every single person in the state is joining with us in this suffering and sacrifice and that we are not being asked to shoulder the burden entirely.

Governor Patterson said yesterday that, “We cannot solve our problems overnight or without sacrifice - they run too deep for that. These problems may last for many more months or even years. But we can solve them and, with courage, we can craft a brighter, smarter future for New York.”

I agree with those sentiments, but I think we need to put a little bit of common sense in there before we continue with the sacrifice.

I don’t know about your economy but bailing out banks and insurance companies seems to have had very little impact on mine, thus far. I know that the Wall Street bailout was hardly Governor Patterson’s doing but I know that it is a perfect example of why we HAVE to find answers at the state level for the problems of the day. We simply cannot depend on the federal government to do what is right or just when things are broken.

If we leave it up to the fed or follow their lead, the problems New Yorkers are now facing will go unsolved. The biggest problem, without any doubt, is health care. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by the Business Council of NY, health care is the single biggest issue for business owners in New York State. Worker’s comp rates came in a distant second.

Governor Patterson says we “need the courage to balance our budget as well as our priorities.” Well, he is absolutely right and small business has spoken loudly about the priority; it is health care. The question becomes, How do

we balance our budget while insuring the millions of New Yorkers who lack coverage?

I know the answer and, in reality, so does the Governor. That’s why I was absolutely horrified yesterday to see him openly advocate for more bureaucratic and incremental answers to our health care crisis rather than the sweeping reform we so desperately need.

Where health care is concerned, there is one clear answer and it is Single-Payer Health Care. It is basically the Canadian Health Care system with a few twists. It’s a clear and intelligent answer to a pressing problem. The Governor’s advocacy for building additional bureaucracies in our state with substandard care and inconsistent access is not such an answer. We need to get rid of the HMO’s and administrate our state’s health care through one mechanism instead of the hundreds that currently exist. It is projected that just that one bold move would save us 25-30% of what we currently pay for health care.

The Canadian system costs about $5200 per person with universal coverage and if you question its efficiency, you should know that, propaganda aside, Canadians live a full year longer than we do. You should also know that no sober, literate, Canadian would even consider switching health plans with anyone living in the U.S. unless they were forced to at gunpoint.

Here, in the U.S., we spend about $7200 per person on health care. Bear in mind that this is with about 60 million people completely uncovered and another 50 million or so ‘underinsured’. With all the layoffs projected from the recession, these numbers will increase dramatically. The incredible truth is that if we adopted Single-Payer Health Care in this country, we would actually be spending far less on care and everyone would be covered. It’s really a common sense approach to the problem.

Thanks to John Conyers and Denis Kucinich, there is already a resolution before congress, HR 676, which does have sponsors, but we need to be realistic about its chances in Washington. The resolution is unlikely to pass. There is simply too much HMO and pharmaceutical money floating around the Capitol for our public servants to do what is just. Many people think of my congresswoman, Kirsten Gillibrand, as a progressive of some kind. She, just like Barack Obama, and now New York’s Governor, has refused to discuss single payer at any level and has refused to support HR 676 even though she knows it is the best, most economical answer.

With our federal representatives doing such a poor job of representing us, we need Governor Patterson to help us resolve this issue right now, right here at home. We can have a single-payer system right here in New York state. We are projected to spend some $140 billion dollars in this state on health care in 2009. If we were to set up a single-payer health plan and spend a similar amount to what the Canadians do per capita, we would be saving $1,800 per person over what is already being spent with EVERY New Yorker covered. Who knows? Maybe we could start living a year longer, too!

Governor, business leaders are telling you that health care is the single biggest issue on the state's agenda but we can also tell you that there is a simple solution. Now is the time for our state government to implement solutions that actually make sense and not just those that seem politically feasible. We have suffered enough. Our workers have suffered enough. How, as a state, can we lose? How can it not make sense to save boatloads of money during a recession while ensuring that every citizen of New York has total access to health care?

The Governor called this recession “the gravest economic challenge in nearly a century.” Well, it seems to me that it really doesn’t have to be if we can just make decisions together which benefit everyone in our state and not just special interest groups and lobbies. Please, Governor Patterson, do what is right and support single-payer health care. Support common sense.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some are more equal than others

Ed. note: I usually try to avoid writing about the monthly Israeli-Palestinian wars because hardly anyone can comment on it in a civilized, rational manner and I'll probably regretting making an exception but here goes...

The most famous line of the US Declaration of Independence reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

I've concluded that this line is not true. Because whenever erupts the monthly violence in the Middle East, what I hear is that either (though not both) Israeli lives or Palestinian lives are worth more than those of any other human being.

Why?

Because when a few Israelis get killed by Hamas rockets, it's an outrage that requires a massive, completely disproportionate military response. If hundreds of Gazan civilians die in the process, it's unfortunate but it's 'worth it' if it saves the life of one Israeli civilian. There you have it quite explicitly and unashamedly. The life of one Israeli civilian is greater than the lives of hundreds (soon to be thousands?) of Palestinians.

But Israel apologists are not unique in this regard. Several hundred Palestinians have died during the recent Israeli aggression against Gaza. There has been deafening international condemnation of this action.

Some of it has been from Arab countries. Most of these countries have human rights' records that are at least as bad, if not far worse, than Israel's. Most of these are countries that arbitrarily arrest people, make sure opponents are 'disappeared' and ban free speech... except of course when it comes to anti-Israel protests.

A lot of the protest comes from western Europe. They claim it's a disgrace, an outrage, amassive crime against humanity what Israel's doing to Gazans. These poor civilians who had nothing to do with Hamas rockets shouldn't be murdered, claim European (and a few American) protesters.

But this also begs the question. A few hundred have died in Gaza and this has provoked international outrage, especially from the western left. By contrast,5.4 MILLION people have died during the last 10 years of war and chaos in the DR Congo. Are there mass protests in the European streets about this far greater tragedy? The Central African Republic. Burma. Darfur. Northern Uganda. North Korea. There are at least half a dozen places around the world with a humanitarian situation comparably bad to Gaza. You haven't heard about most of them.

Why? Because the Israel-Palestine is a cause celebre. Some see Israel as a projection of their own militaristic tendencies. Some see Palestine as a projection of their own anti-imperialist beliefs.

The truth is that, with a few exceptions, global "concern" for the Israel-Palestine situation really has little to do with the Israeli and Palestinian civilian victims of the violence. The concern has to do with supporting or opposing the US' unconditional support of everything Israel does.

If you oppose this, then Hamas is justified in rocketing Israeli villages and using civilians as human shields. If you support this, then Israel is justified in bombing UN schools and banning humanitarian assistance from Gaza and, if they felt like it, nuking the Occupied Territories.

Viewed objectively, viewed as a human being rather than as a member of one tribe or the other, ALL of these are war crimes. Too bad hardly anyone views it that way.

If the US government weren't involved in this, most Americans wouldn't give a damn what happened to Israeli civilians and most of the rest of the world wouldn't give a damn what happened to Gazan civilians. Just ask the Congolese. Or the Burmese. Or any of the thousands of political prisoners in Syria or Egypt or Iran. Who's protesting on their behalf?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ghana

Congratulations to the Republic of Ghana, in West Africa, for holding yet another free and fair election with minimal controversy, with no outside interference and marked by admirable conduct from the major candidates.

Thank goodness Ghana took its lessons in electoral democracy from Botswana and South Africa rather than Florida or Minnesota.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Pipeline Politics: The Russian/Ukrainian Gas Dispute (guest essay)

Editor’s note: While last summer’s Russia aggression against Georgia garnered international headlines, Russia’s consistent use of energy in recent years to bully other countries has also had serious ramifications. Earlier this week, Russia kicked it up a notch by slashing natural gas supplies to much of Europe due to a murky dispute with Ukraine. MOFYC's resident Eastern European Expert Mark offers his take on the situation.



Pipeline Politics: The Russian/Ukrainian Gas Dispute
by Mark


Most of us appreciate the sharp decline in gas prices in recent months. However, two major geopolitical crises are responsible for the recent spike in prices, and unless both are resolved rather quickly, the upward pressure on prices will continue. After dropping to a low of around $31 per barrel, as of mid-week they are creeping towards $50 once again. The Israeli assault in Gaza is one factor, and the one most of us are familiar with; the second is the dispute between Russia and Ukraine in regards to natural gas prices for the 2009 fiscal year. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-running and convoluted dispute in itself, the natural gas dispute is arguably just as complex, if not even murkier. Let me introduce you to the opaque world of energy politics in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Russia has not only been blessed with among the largest natural gas reserves in the world, but plenty of energy-hungry neighbors on its borders and beyond to which to sell this resource. Currently, Russia, through its state-run energy monopoly Gazprom, provides the European Union with about one-quarter of its natural gas needs. If you break down that statistic into individual countries, things get even more impressive: according to Wikipedia, as of 2004, Gazprom is the *only* natural gas supplier to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Slovakia, and provides 97 percent of Bulgaria's gas, 89 percent of Hungary's, 86 percent of Poland's, nearly three-quarters of the Czech Republic's, 67 percent of Turkey's, 65 percent of Austria's, about 40 percent of Romania's, 36 percent of Germany's, 27 percent of Italy's, and 25 percent of France's. If you think the US is too dependent on crude oil from the Middle East, re-read the aforementioned figures.

Natural gas is not that easy to transport. Due to its very low density, the most economical way of transporting it is through pipelines. However, to get to Europe, Russia must ship natural gas through several countries, particularly Ukraine. Let’s look at this map from the BBC:



80% of western and central Europe’s natural gas travels through Ukraine. That is a choke point in every sense of the word.

An independent, western-oriented Ukraine has been a thorn in Russia’s side for years. The most recent disputes between the two involve a whole list of issues, such as NATO membership for Ukraine, the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, the future of the Russian fleet base in Sevastopol, influence in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, recognition of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide (the Holodomor) as an act of genocide perpetrated by the Soviet regime, etc. In the 2004 Orange Revolution, the pro-Russian government and its preferred presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, were defeated and discredited in street demonstrations and new elections by the pro-western democratic forces led by current president Viktor Yushchenko.

One method of putting pressure on Ukraine has been for Russia to raise natural gas prices. It has been done before, and that appears to be the situation currently. In the most recent dispute, Gazprom began making claims in November that Ukraine owed them some $2.4 billion, and they would stop supplying Ukraine with gas unless the debts were paid off in full by December 31, 2008. This is where it gets really confusing, but bear with me.

Ukraine countered that since they technically purchase natural gas through an intermediary called RosUkrEnergo (RUE, a murky enterprise half owned by Gazprom, half by two Ukrainian businessmen, and all accused of having ties to organized crime in Russia and lining the pockets of some Kremlin officials) it was impossible for Ukraine to owe Gazprom any money. Then Ukraine admitted it owed $1.2 billion. Then Ukraine said it had paid off the full debt to RUE.(“In full” by whose standards?) Then Gazprom said Ukraine still owed them $614 million in late fees. And get this: a month before the accusations began flying around, the prime ministers of both countries had apparently signed a deal where RUE would have been abolished and Ukraine would have purchased natural gas from Gazprom directly. An agreement was signed to nix RUE (we think?), and within a few weeks new accusations about unpaid debts are made.

And then, we come to the newest part of the dispute. What price should Ukraine pay for natural gas? And what price should Russia pay to transport natural gas to its customers beyond Ukraine? As of December 2008, Ukraine was paying $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, and charging Russia $1.70 to transport 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers. Energy analyst Roman Kupchinsky writes:

“[Gazprom] CEO Alexei Miller said in December that Ukraine would pay $450 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2009. During the unsuccessful negotiations, Gazprom demanded $250, which the Ukrainians rejected, making a counteroffer of $208. Miller responded that since they had rejected $250, they would pay $418. On January 1 Oleh Dubyna, the head of [the state-run Ukrainian energy monopoly] Naftohaz Ukrainy, offered to buy Russian gas for $235 contingent on a price increase for transporting Russian gas to Europe from the current $1.70 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers to $1.80. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rejected this increase and insisted that transit fees were locked into a contract that is due to expire in 2010. The next day Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and [Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko made a joint public statement on the crisis in which they upped the proposed transit price to “not less than $2.00.” (full article here)

Ukraine denies the existence of a transit fee contract that supposedly expires in 2010, and also points out that the transit fees of Western European countries are regularly twice as much as what Ukraine charges Gazprom. If Russia wants to raise natural gas prices, why can’t Ukraine ask for higher transit fees as well?

Does your head hurt yet? The media has had just as much trouble as you and me in trying to keep track of all these threats, statements and deals. There were times at which, if you went on Google or Yahoo news for updates, you would literally see contradictory headlines on articles written merely a few hours apart. All of this is a symptom of the lack of transparency in the negotiating process.

Since Ukraine and Russia could not agree on the debt nor the 2009 gas price, Russia cut supplies to Ukraine… sort of. They simply deducted from the pipelines the amount of gas Ukraine regularly receives, and kept the rest flowing west. (A full cut would obviously cut all supplies to western and central Europe.) However, Russia now claims Ukraine is illegally siphoning large amount of gas from the pipes, some 65.3 million cubic meters between January 1-4. Ukraine counters that a much smaller amount than that is being siphoned by their state energy monopoly, but only enough to maintain pressure in the pipes for the Western consumers. It is also entirely plausible that some Ukrainian companies, particularly in heavy industry, are taking gas from the pipelines without permission from the Ukrainian government to keep their own factories on line.

In response, the Kremlin ordered an even greater cut in the amount of natural gas shipped west, and now nearly a dozen European consumer countries are reporting that the amount of natural gas reaching them has decreased or been completely halted. The EU, which has been calling this a commercial dispute between Ukraine and Russia, is finally being, ahem, motivated to do more. Fact-finding missions have been sent to both Kyiv and Moscow to figure out what the hell’s going on. Gazprom says it will re-supply the west through pipelines in Belarus and Turkey, but, logistically speaking, cannot make up the difference. Luckily for everyone, negotiations are supposed to resume tomorrow in Moscow. But will they succeed?

The Ukrainian economy is reeling from the global financial crisis. The currency has lost some 60% of its value, and steel production, a key component of its economy, is down over 40%. Ukraine qualified for over $16.4 billion in IMF loans, but it may not be enough to keep the country from falling into an economic depression and/or social instability. Ukraine has stated that it cannot afford to pay $250 for natural gas, never mind $450.

When a private individual is in debt, normally the creditor can suggest a deal where the debt is renegotiated or even lowered, because the creditor would prefer to retrieve some money than no money from the debtor. But when it comes to the situation between Ukraine and Russia, rather than Ukraine going bankrupt and not repaying Russia, the Kremlin probably hopes for a different outcome- the fall of the current government. If the Ukrainian public sentiment against the pro-western government rises high enough, it can mean a return to power of a more agreeable, pro-Russian government. Yanukovych lost the 2004 presidential election, but if the crises with Russia continue and Ukraine’s economy keeps faltering, he may take office in just over a year.

Russia also has many problems of its own: the collapse in energy prices has shaken the economy to the core. The stock market has lost 75% of its value in less than five months, and the currency is down some 25% to the dollar. The market and ruble would have fallen even further if the Kremlin had not sunk tens of billions of dollars from government coffers into subsidizing the market, the currency and many large companies (including Gazprom!) as a last resort. Russia needs oil prices of at least $70 a barrel to balance a budget, and the recent downturn has many Russians very worried about their economic prospects and yes, even questioning their own government’s competence.

According to Pavel Baev of the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo, “One direct consequence of this [Russian economic] downfall is the new Russian-Ukrainian “gas war,” which Moscow has launched this year out of desperation rather than arrogance as was the case in 2006. In autumn Gazprom was reaping record profits from exporting gas to Europe, because the price of gas follows that of oil with a lag of six to nine months. These increased prices are set to disappear in 2009, so Gazprom wants to fix the price for Ukraine at the current European level, which Kiev [sic] has every reason to consider too high.” (full article here) The collapse of oil prices has been hard enough on Russia; a collapse in natural gas prices would hurt Russia even more.

Ukraine needs to undergo two sets of reforms to get out of this predicament: energy use reform and energy politics reform. The country’s Soviet-era industries and factories are among the least energy efficient in the world, and Ukrainian consumers pay rates that are highly subsidized by the government. Industry must be modernized and made more energy efficient, and gas prices must be raised to reflect market rates; the Ukrainian government recognizes this and has proposed a transition over the next several years to higher prices, but a hike to $250 or more for natural gas in the short term could crush the economy. Ukraine, and the rest of Europe, should also strive for energy source diversification, so as to not rely almost entirely on the whims of an increasingly authoritarian and belligerent Kremlin for their energy needs. Secondly, the corruption and serious lack of transparency in the energy market of the former Soviet Union is a plague upon the entire region. Deals and contracts are made, money is transferred, but few really know what is going on. Until the industry’s accountability standards and local judicial system can be improved, future energy contracts between Ukraine and foreign entities such as Gazprom must be made open to oversight, preferably through a trusted third party such as the EU, OSCE or WTO. A neutral referee can make sure funds are correctly transferred and contracts are properly made and fully upheld.

Mark is a recovering blogger who quit cold turkey in the summer of 2007. Currently he is an irregular guest analyst of international affairs, particularly on Eastern European happenings, for Musings of a (Fairly) Young Contrarian Mark has led a full and productive life ever since he suspended full-time blogging: he has argued with Ukrainian election officials as an accredited international observer, seen the inside of an Eastern European maximum security prison, toured the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina and lent a hand in the city’s reconstruction, was nearly trampled by a pack of New Orleans police horses, completed an MA in history, sampled Germany’s finest beer, and climbed a 5,600-foot peak in Bavaria without provisions. For his next act, Mark is plotting a week long excursion to Slovenia at the end of this month. For pictures of these adventures and more, go to: http://community.webshots.com/user/shukhevych